In the wake of the U.S. killing of General Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran is scrambling to figure out how to respond to President Trump. Throughout 2019, Iran ratcheted up threats and tensions, targeting oil tankers in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and U.S. troops in Iraq via proxies, testing Washington’s response. The decision to kill Soleimani, who arrived at Baghdad International Airport without any apparent suspicion of his impending death, threw down a gauntlet to Tehran that left the Ayatollah and the IRGC grasping for response options. This is a lesson to be learned from the recent Iran tensions: The U.S. can strike back at Iran and its allies without a major war resulting, so long as Iran is surprised or confused by the U.S. response.
Iran, in response, fired ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq because it didn’t know what else to do. Ballistic missiles enabled Iran to strike without risking its own casualties and to showcase a technology that it has and that the U.S. lacked defenses against in Iraq. But the strike was limited in scope, and Iran hoped that at worst the U.S. would respond with cruise missiles or some similar kind of missile strike. How do we know this? Iran didn’t put its whole country on a war footing when it fired the missiles. It did down a civilian Ukrainian Airlines flight by mistake, showing that it expected some kind of aerial retaliation.
Iran tries to project an image of itself as massively powerful and cunning, sending its constantly smiling foreign minister, Javad Zarif, abroad to demonstrate its ability to open doors from Europe to Asia. Closer to home, Iran pushes relations with Turkey, Qatar, India, Oman, and other countries. Iran boasts of massive revenge for its losses. All last year, Iranian media featured articles about its military technological achievements, such as new drones, missiles, and warships. But behind the facade of strength and boasting, Iran prefers long-term incremental achievements and influence entrenchment in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.
Take the Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq throughout 2019 as an example. Iran can read U.S. media and official statements to gauge U.S. response. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Iraq in May to warn of possible Iranian escalation. From that moment Iran did escalate, attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and downing a U.S. drone in June. In Iraq, rockets were fired at bases where U.S. forces are located. Pompeo warned in December that “Iran’s proxies have recently conducted several attacks” in Iraq and that the U.S. would respond directly if Iran harmed U.S. personnel. David Schenker, State Department assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, said that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq were shelling Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are located.
Iran didn’t expect the U.S. to carry through with a powerful response because it could read U.S. responses to the June drone downing and knew that Trump had refrained from a strike on Iran. Whether by mistake or intention, a rocket attack by Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah in late December killed a U.S. contractor near Kirkuk. Five Kataib Hezbollah sites were hit with U.S. airstrikes in response, and dozens were killed. Iran predicted that a show of force at the U.S. embassy would embarrass Washington and show the U.S. who is boss in Iraq. On Twitter on December 31, Pompeo singled out Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iran, and other Iraqi proxies of Iran as responsible for the attack on the U.S. embassy. Tehran’s leaders could have read that tweet as the threat that it was. Instead, Muhandis met Soleimani at the airport in Baghdad two days later, without fear that he was being followed by a U.S. drone that would soon turn his SUV into a smoldering wreck.
The decision to go off script and strike directly at Soleimani and Muhandis has been termed “regime disruption,” a purposeful attempt to confuse Tehran by doing something unprecedented. Iran’s initial reaction was muted despite its boasts of “hard revenge,” because it doesn’t know what to do. It wants to keep an open account with the U.S., as a threat to do more. But Tehran’s usual attempt to control the tempo of conflict in the Middle East has been blunted.
Lesson learned: Iran does best when it gets to set the narrative through its good-cop/bad-cop strategy of military bluster and political sweet talk, played by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Iran’s proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. But what does Iran do when it faces complex challenges? In Syria, Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets, and Iran has responded with desultory rocket fire. The attacks appear to have reached a point where Iran expects them and shrugs them off, because, as with Soleimani, it doesn’t know how to respond to Israel. It has provided Hezbollah with a massive arsenal of rockets and wants to equip them with precision guidance, but Tehran must know that you get to use this massive arsenal only once before you provoke a war with Israel. That means that Hezbollah has one shot and that Iran must preserve that threat for a rainy day.
Where Iran succeeds in its incrementalism is in the Gulf and in dealings with Europe over the Iran deal. Iran has walked away from key aspects of the deal over the past year, giving Europe 60-day warnings. Iran did the same in the Gulf, judging that Saudi Arabia would not respond to a drone and cruise-missile attack in September against its Abaiq refinery. Typically, when 25 drones and nine cruise missiles strike a massive refinery, the country would go to war in response. But Iran knows that Saudi Arabia can’t afford a real war that would destabilize the Gulf and oil exports. Riyadh and its wealthy Gulf neighbors have more to lose than Iran does in such a scenario.
Iran expects its adversaries to follow a script, and it has a ready-made tit-for-tat response. The U.S. left the Iran deal and struck Soleimani and Muhandis, surprising Tehran. Killing another IRGC commander would have diminishing returns, just as sanctions seem to no longer surprise Tehran. This is a challenge for American strategists: Devise a strategy whose core is to do the opposite of what the enemy expects. A combination of Seinfeld’s George and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The more Iran has to focus on what the U.S. might do next, the less Iran can plan on how to attack the U.S. and its allies, including Israel.